Five loaves

In the body of this sermon there is reference to the series of sermons preached in the preceding months and to the pictures that were used in the sanctuary for each of those Sundays. Some of the pictures from each of those Sundays continued to decorate the sanctuary this Sunday. A handout was created for each Sunday in the series showing the pictures and themes of the message. Their content was posted on this blog as Creation, Garden, Fall, and Violence. The Noah pictures have not yet been posted.

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18, Year A
August 6, 2017

Matthew 14:13-21: “Now when Jesus heard this, [that John had been beheaded and Herod saw Jesus as John’s successor] he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

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I want to begin this morning with the sentence at the end of our Gospel account about the number of people who were present for the wonder of the loaves and fishes. We call this story the feeding of the five thousand, but it really ought to be called the feeding of the five thousand families. Or, perhaps better, the five thousand households. The line in question, of course, is the one in verse 21 that says:

“And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

That sentence has a kind of bitter aftertaste. It grates on our ears. It sounds to us as if the women and children were an afterthought and not worth counting. We know the world has trouble treating women and children equally, and this sentence adds to the perception that the scripture somehow shares that attitude.

It is not of course, the Biblical message that draws such lines through the human community. It is rather that the Biblical message is spoken into a world that lives with those lines. This is important to say clearly and repeatedly: It is not the Biblical message that draws lines of distinction through the human community; the Biblical message is spoken to a human community that lives with such lines.

I touched on this when we read the story of the Garden of Eden. As we have said before, the pictures on the walls are from those stories that are foundational for this Biblical faith that declares that God called into being a good world and, though the world has gone astray, God is determined to rescue his creation.

So the first story (Genesis 1) is about the goodness of the created world, and the second story (Genesis 2) is of the garden in which all the creatures are formed by God and brought to the first human, the ‘adam’ (the Hebrew word for ‘human being’) because it is the core of our humanity to be in relationship. But all the creatures of the world are not equal to the ‘adam’, so God used a portion of that first ‘adam’ to create another human as an equal partner. It is only after humanity turns away from God – because of the lasting legacy of our failure to live faithfully – that the equality between men and women gets ruptured and the lines appear that divide us from one another and set us over one another and make some more important than others.

It is not the Biblical message that divides the human community. That’s on us. But the Biblical message is spoken in a world and to a world that is divided. So, in the world of the first century, it would not sound at all strange to say, “five thousand men, besides women and children.” That’s what the world had become. (I do, however, think that ‘besides’ is the wrong translation. The Greek word means ‘apart from’. And though the difference here is subtle, but you’ll see why it is important.)

The significance of this sentence would have been obvious to the ancients but is hiding from us. The sentence isn’t discounting the presence of women and children; it is highlighting them. And by doing that, it tells us something profound about what happened on the hillside.

In the world of the first century, the fact that the men sat apart from the women and children puts this event into the category of a public banquet. The story we are being told is not like the president going down into the White House kitchen and making sandwiches with his staff. Nor is this a meeting in the oval office where tea is served. The presence of the men apart from the women indicates this is a banquet like a state dinner. State dinners are, by definition, public events. The whole point of a state dinner is for the world to see that you are honoring your guest and to acknowledge the relationship between your two countries.

And a state dinner has protocols. There are rules and traditions for who attends and where they sit and how they are served. That’s the nature of banquets. It is the same way at a wedding banquet; it has it’s own rules and traditions. Even the simplest public dinners in our homes like Thanksgiving and Christmas have their rules – for example, you don’t eat until everyone’s at the table and you offer the food first to the guest.

In the first century, a public banquet was, by definition, a meal among men. So this sentence that tells us the men ate apart from the women and children tells us that what happened on the hillside is to be understood as a public banquet. The fact that the men are seated separately from the women and children tells us that this is far more than just lunch.

And here is why this information matters. At a banquet the men were served first and, when they were through eating, the food that remained would be taken to feed the women and children. Then, what remained after the women and children had eaten, was taken and given to the poor. As a result, the whole community shared in a public banquet. The feast for some was a feast for all. (And here, by the way, it’s important to note that the women weren’t just getting the leftover table scraps. The men would be mindful that others were going to share in their feast and would behave accordingly. For someone to eat to excess was considered shameful.)

So imagine, if you will, that at a state dinner the food was presented on large, beautiful platters. And after the guests had eaten, the platters of food were taken back into the kitchen and served to the staff. Then, after the kitchen help and butlers and maids had eaten, imagine these platters of fine food – still on their silver trays – being carried across the street to Lafayette Square and served to the homeless in the park.

What’s happening on the hillside is a royal banquet where the men have been fed, the women and children have been fed, and there are twelve baskets left over to carry to the poor and hungry of the twelve tribes of Israel.

This is the meal of which Isaiah spoke when he said

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled. The hope of a world gathered at one table has come.

Matthew is brilliant in the way he constructs his narrative, because the story right before this is the story of Herod’s banquet, where there is no mention of food shared with the women and children, where Herod does the unthinkable and disgraceful thing of allowing his daughter to dance before men who are not part of his immediate family, and where Herod shows himself without honor by allowing himself to be aroused by the dancing of a woman – let alone his daughter – and loses self-control, promising to giver her anything she wants. Then, rather than losing face before his courtiers, he grants the request to have the prophet, John, beheaded.

Herod’s banquet is a banquet of greed and lust that ends in death. Jesus’ banquet is a banquet of compassion that gives life. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for a few; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for all. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for the rich and mighty; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for the poor and powerless. The one leads to death and the other leads to life.

As I wrote in the blog post at the beginning of this week: “choose your kingdom; choose your king.” Do you want the world governed by the spirit of Herod, or do you want the world governed by the spirit of Jesus?

The point of this profound event is not that Jesus has some kind of magical power over the bread; the point is that the banquet of God is at hand.   The reign of God is dawning. The new creation is born in our midst.

In Christ is a world of grace and mercy, compassion and courage, truth and faithfulness, generosity and abundance – a world where every table is shared. In Herod we have our world where five men own as much as half the world’s population and the Daily Post last Friday has an article about a restaurant here in town that has just a single table and serves steak flecked with gold. (If you average the numbers of those five wealthy men, by the way, each one possesses the wealth of 750 million people.)

Before us are two banquets, Herod and Jesus. And you can have the world of the five men, or you can have the world of the five loaves.

Every Sunday, we put five loaves on the altar – not because we need five, but because we are remembering the five loaves, and the banquet where all were fed, even the homeless in Lafayette Park.

We put five loaves on the altar because we are in the presence of the Spirit of him who had compassion on all people.

We put five loaves on the altar because we are choosing to show allegiance and trust in this king of mercy and not the kings and ruling powers of the world.

We put five loaves on the altar because we are grateful that Christ is in our midst and his arms are open to us.

We put five loaves on the altar because what little we have can, in the hands of Christ, become grace to thousands.

We put five loaves on the altar because we want to be children of his kingdom.